Departing the Indies

 A historical perspective of life in colonial and post-colonial Indonesia.

Indonesian NationalismImmediately following WWII the Dutch East Indies found itself embroiled in yet another conflict. This time the fight was with Indonesian nationalists striving to attain the lofty ideals required to form a republic rather than the exploitation of commodities that had catapulted the islands into violent struggles in the past.

They were demanding from the Dutch colonialists the right to pursue independence on their own terms and were fully prepared to take up arms, dictate the timeline, and sacrifice life in order to achieve their goal.

Considerably weakened by years of fighting the Japanese, the Dutch army was now in no condition to take on a new adversary.  Over the next 7 months the island of Java would bear witness to a mish-mash of nations either fighting, protecting, or attempting to remain neutral. 

The British, Japanese, Dutch, and Indonesian forces were destined to clash.

At the outset confusion was prevalent. Dutch civilians who had been the captives of the Japanese for 3 ½ years were now being protected by them and in a cruel twist of irony had to remain behind the walls of their concentration camps for survival.

The British were on their way to act as a neutralizing force and would attempt to peacefully resolve the issue.

The Dutch were fighting to hold on to their colony and the Japanese, whose role had been turned upside down, were ordered to both protect the Dutch civilians and remain neutral.

It was just a matter of time before sentiments would change.

The mood directed at the Dutch, Japanese, and Indo populations would become hostile. Indo men were arrested, beaten, and killed for allying themselves with the Dutch. Violence erupted all over the island and fighting back seemed the only option for all concerned.  Regular violent clashes sprang up in Batavia, Bandung, Surabaya, and Central Java for months.

Consistent fighting continued well into 1946.

The Indo population became victims of the revolutionary war cry and were verbally reduced to being dog-like by nationalist leader Sutomo who pronounced, “Torture them to death, destroy those bloodhounds of colonialism to the root. The immortal spirits of your ancestors demand of you: revenge, bloody revenge!”

Over 23,500 Indo-Europeans were killed or disappeared in the 7 month span from the end of WWII to March of 1946 when the Dutch began entertaining the idea of resolving the situation through verbal, peaceful negotiations.

The Bersiap period lasted from August 17 1945, following the nationalists’ declaration of independence and the birth of the Republic, through December 1946.

The full scope of the fight to maintain this independent status however, would last several more years.  After months of talks and failed attempts to crush the revolution, the Dutch succumbed to international pressure and formerly handed over sovereignty on December 27th 1949.

Through the late 1940’s and early 1950’s thousands of Dutch and Indo families boarded ships for the 3 week voyage to the Netherlands.

Their journey would take them through the Suez canal, stopping in Port Said, Egypt, for clothes more suitable to the colder Northern European weather; then onto Holland.

For many Dutch and Indo’s this was a land on which they had never before set foot.

As it was for my family, and many others, this was far from a joyous day. This day and this voyage represented a departure from the only life they had known.

Many were born on the islands.

Much more than geographic distance separated these two nations. Culturally there was little, if anything, in common. The journey represented the last moments of tropical life for many and I can only imagine that the fun and games of the voyage was merely a mask temporarily banishing an underlying sorrow for a lost homeland.

Upon arrival in Holland it was not only the weather that had a chill to it but also the reception.

The Dutch in Holland looked down upon their returning countrymen from the Indies. The perception was that they had all lived a life of extreme privilege. That even the consequences of the war had left them untouched; how bad could it have been to be imprisoned on a tropical island was the overwhelming sentiment.

The Indo population was treated even worse.

Many of them had fought alongside the Dutch upholding the colony of Queen Wilhelmina. Many hadn’t wanted to leave Indonesia at all but were either forced out or vehemently encouraged to depart and seek a new life abroad.

Trapped now between countries and seemingly not welcome in either.

Verbal abuse, ignorance, hardship, and betrayal were what greeted many as they arrived in Holland. The economy was suffering and Holland was in a crisis. Making a living was difficult for those that deemed themselves more worthy let alone those who had just arrived from the tropics.

For these reasons, and the weather, many families once again boarded ships bound for the US, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.

Many countries offered free passage in exchange for a 2 year work commitment. 

Thousands of Dutch and Indo’s took advantage of these opportunities.  My mother and her sisters among them. Their quest for a new homeland and a better life continued. In doing so, it dispersed two populations with a common place of birth throughout the world…provided the weather was good!

They left Holland and settling all over the world.

My mother and her sisters found a new home in New Zealand, Australia, and for a brief moment, South Africa. Other relatives dispersed to Canada. My Grandfather and Grandmother remained living in Holland. He died in the 70’s missing his old life in the Indies while she went on to live many more years and in one more country. She eventually passed away in a small town in tropical Australia where she lived her last years in the company of her eldest daughter, my aunt.

For more on this four part series see;
Arriving in the Indies , Living in the Indies , Surviving in the Indies

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37 thoughts on “Departing the Indies

  1. Hi Tim,

    What an incredible story of heartache, pain, sacrifice, bravery and courage!!!! Thank you for sharing your family experience in the context of history. You made it real for me and very interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow! The history in this series is very interesting. It must have been hard for your mom to continue to move. It is crazy that when the Dutch and Indo-Dutch were able to return to Holland they were greeted by getting the cold shoulder from the people there. That had to be hard after going through all of the hate in the islands.

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  3. Wasn’t the movie “The Year of Living Dangerously” about this period? The Second World War, sad to say, left many parts of the world in upheaval. When families are torn apart, it’s tragic. This is obviously very close to your heart. The culture shock must have been devastating for your family, especially the lack of understanding for what they’d been through. Your grandfather made the right choice, as heart-breaking as it was …

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  4. The story of how many families in history did not enjoy the comfort of “home” in the way we now do is a story of a struggle and a hope. They were focused on changing a destiny and creating a better life. What a story.

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  5. Tim – I had NO idea! It’s amazing what makes the history books and what doesn’t. I wonder what determines those decisions? Thank you for this series. When will the book be coming out? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is amazing what does and doesn’t make the history books in certain parts of the world and not in others. I am glad you found the series enjoyable Angela; thank you.

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  6. I must add again how much I like this blog. History is never just dates and events; it is a personal journey of people through time. Thanks so much for sharing.

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  7. Tim, you must have had relatives on almost every continent at one point. In some ways you can think of World War II as the end of colonialism. A war ends but another era of suffering and strife began in many counties in Asia as well as in other parts of the world. I always find it interesting to read about the personal side of stories like this, not just the political.

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    1. You are absolutely right Ken, the era of human suffering is certainly not confined to that period of colonialism…Cambodia, Burma, Rhwanda, Uganda, Sudan to name only a few in recent history.

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  8. I vaguely remember something about this conflict but not enough to call myself knowledgeable. Regardless, this was interesting to me, offering a better historical point of view of the event/events. I cannot imagine what your family must have endured. The separation alone had to have been extraordinarily difficult.

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    1. You are among the few Susan who remember anything at all about this era. Most have no idea when it comes to this piece of history as it wasn’t taught in schools or got much media attention even at the time.

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  9. Tim, I may have said this before (because I know I’ve thought it), but have you ever thought of writing a historical novel about your family’s story? Even these four installments read like an epic story and I find myself wanting to know more about the people, events, and pictures that you’ve shared. Thanks for education me, and sharing your family’s story.

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    1. Thanks Meredith and yes, I have thought of that. It would be a way to wrap the story of my family around historical fact then fill in the gaps with educated fiction. The idea is very exciting to me.

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  10. This is really sad story and after reading “Torture them to death, destroy those bloodhounds of colonialism to the root. The immortal spirits of your ancestors demand of you: revenge, bloody revenge!” I was thinking about those who have suffered.
    It is also sad that people of Holland were treated badly by their country men. They must have returned by some hopes, but Alas!

    WWII also has importance in our family as my 2 grandfathers were also caught by Japanese and were jailed and tortured for 5 years as they were fighting from British army. One of Grand Father, when he returned lost his memory.
    My grand father always told us many historical stories of that time ( he lived for hundred years and died in 2003).

    For 5 years my Grandmother lived her life with a belief that he will return someday and he did.
    So I can understand this situation and what people and families who were suffering have felt and are still feeling.

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  11. Tim, I am so glad you wrote this series. I have never heard about this time in history – it seems rather forgotten by the rest of the world which is unfortunate. All history is important. I also didn’t realize that Holland didn’t welcome them – I guess many did think – “we lived through Hitler’s madness and you lived it up on a tropical island”. What a horrid feeling the members of your family must have had, being rejected by people they really considered their own. Hope you have more of this kind of story to share. It was fascinating.

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  12. It’s always hard to leave family behind but when you feel that you have no choice and aren’t even leaving by choice, it must have been devastating. Families sometimes have had to make decisions like that based on what seemed to be best for their younger members.

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  13. This may be an odd comment, never-the-less, that’s the one I’m going to make. As bad as it is, I quote you: “The Dutch in Holland looked down upon their returning countrymen from the Indies.” I’m glad it’s not only Swedes who have that kind of horrendous attitude:-)

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  14. This was really interesting Tim. I think a lot of people would never have realised what happened in that part of the world. I love the ending, how your grandmother got to end her life in tropical surroundings with her daughter.

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  15. This is yet another topic I had only the vaguest notion of until recent travels, so your posts come at a serendipitous moment in time for me. To know your family is wrapped up in all of this history makes it even more pertinent and heartbreaking. The Rijksmuseum had some displays regarding Dutch Indonesian settlements, but it was the usual fly-by visit. Now I can focus more based on your posts. We did try an Indonesian Rice Table restaurant in Amsterdam as they are all over the place, but it was a case of just trying without knowing really how the Indonesian culture is so deeply rooted in the Netherlands.

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    1. I wish I had gotten these posts ready prior to your Amsterdam visit Jeri as having a bit of background may have helped. Glad you were able to try the rice table (rijstaffel). My grandmother apparently made a great one on Sundays when they lived in the Indies with over 20 different small dishes as well as the main ones. It is a fascinating time in history made even more so because of my family history. Thanks as always Jeri.

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  16. Hi Tim,

    Interesting indeed 🙂

    Honestly speaking, I was totally unaware of this conflict following WW II – one just read a little in the History classes we used to have in school and little from here and there – that’s all. But there is still a lot happening in so many other countries that makes people and families shift to other better countries, so one can never say what the result just might be at the end of the day.

    Thanks for sharing. Have a nice week ahead 🙂

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  17. Because the US was caught up in their issues following WWII, your story is something we didn’t hear much about. The choices that had to be made had to be heart wrenching.

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  18. Hi Tim. I wasn’t familiar with these conflicts following WWII, so learning about this time in history was eye-opening. To read about what the families including yours endured is heartbreaking, especially when all they were searching for was a home.

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  19. What a fascinating story, Tim. I was unaware of this conflict following WW II. It is still happening today with so many people in war-torn countries trying to immigrate to safe havens like the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The more things change the more they stay the same; a cliche but so true.

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  20. Thank you! I have forwarded the links to your last few posts about the Dutch/Dutch Indos to my children, so that they, too, can understand bit more about my family’s past.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. I really don’t remember reading anything about these conflicts, so this is super interesting for me from an historical point of view. But I can’t imagine all that your family endured and then to make those choices that kept them separated had to have been really heart wrenching.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Most certainly. My mother never got to see her father alive again. The decision to leave though was supported by my grandfather as he realized that to find a good future his daughters would have to find a place they could call home; Holland was not that place.

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